Belgacom FON : Privacy aspects and technical considerations

Belgacom announced Free Wifi Hotspots using FON Last June 2011; Its deployment started on November 2011 and recently landed on my B-Box2. Cool isn’t it? … Well … maybe, maybe not.

Let me share my view on this.

Recently I received with the Belgacom bill an additional *black&white* one-page informational paper about Belgacom FON. (First digression. Color print seems too expansive for promoting the free FON stuff, however annoying ads occasionally included are in full color. Interesting, isn’t it? End of digression.)

Related or not, I checked to see if a FON hotspot was enabled at home. The hotspot was active on my B-Box2 but only recently for sure.

It means that, without an individual communication to its users, Belgacom has changed the overall behavior of the B-Box2 installed in my home. I bet that a majority of Belgacom Internet subscribers are not aware that a new SSID has been created on their B-Box2 at their house, or flat, whatever. The only communication that Belgacom made is that one-page informational paper which looks more like a promotional offer rather than a information letter explaining how the FON service impacts the B-Box2 at your home.

The paper is all about the new service and how smart and cool it would be to be anywhere in Belgium being able to surf on the Internet for free (provided you have a Belgacom wifi with FON enabled nearby)… yada yada yada…

I feel that approach is unfair. So I disabled the hotspot straight away, regardless of the fact I like or not the idea of the Belgacom free Wifi via FON.

-> How to disable the FON hotspot on your B-Box2 ? Right Here!

Why is it unacceptable?

Belgacom cross the line with my privacy at home: by forcing the FON_BELGACOM hotspot on my B-Box2, it tells everyone around my house that I’m a Belgacom customer (in addition to using my house to promote their Brand for free because of the name of the SSID).

Previously you had one SSID called “MyWifi” or “WifiHome”, eventually hidden. Now You have a nice Belgacom flag on top of your house by the mean of that hotspot name! Of course if you were careless enough to use the default SSID created when you installed the B-Box2, you were already implicitly promoting their Brand and claiming aloud you are a Belgacom Internet user.

Talking about a flag above your house is literally what it is! Belgacom also created a promotional game around its free Wifi “community”: www.fificherchewifi.be. Basically it maps on google map (and street view) your house with a Belgacom Fon logo on it.

What about my privacy with this? To me this is clearly abusing the relation Belgacom settled with your customers. (Law on Privacy) .

Red Card, Belgacom, Red Card.

Some technical insights:

Thanks to Olivier from the Belgacom Hotline Support, a technically savvy that was able to answer to my tricky questions beyond my hope).

-) Belgacom Fon hotspot is pushed automatically to your B-Box2 when your IP is renewed (every 96 hours) using an ZTI (Zero Touch Installation) package that reconfigure entirely or partly your device (adding the fonctionnality of the FON Hotspot). The push is initiated from a batch process that contains a list of phone numbers which the Hotspot has to be deployed to.

I also gathered that the technical guys cannot remotely take control on my B-Box2 at home with Write access but they can in Read only mode which is enough for Big Brother activity. Okay. Let’s assume they use this capability for maintenance “only” as stated.  Writes on the device are performed using ZTI only (which is an automated process by its nature).

-) Depending your connectivity profile (LP701 to LP714, see page 51 of this pdf), I’ve been told the maximum brandwith that the hotspot could canibalize is 3MB for 5 concurrent users (LP705; 30MB DL capability), 2MB for 3 concurrent users (LP701; 20MB DL capability) and 1MB for 1 single user (LP702 or LP711; 16.5 or 12 MB DL capability). I have not been provided with the upload figures, but using the ratio rule it could canibalize around 10% of your upload capability.

-) There is apparently 2 levels of disabling for the FON hotspot: High level (application) : via the BBox-2 setup page 192.168.1.1. Low level (service) : via the free number 0800 22 640. Disabling the hotspot using this number would trigger a entry in the batch process instructing to remove the FON hotspot functionality via the ZTI operated on the B-Box2 at the renew of IP. I haven’t verified the later.

-) The internet traffic via hotspot is isolated from private internet connection. That’s the least you would expect, isn’t it?

Conclusion

The free Wifi offer from Belgacom based on FON is forcing every of their users to share their Internet connection by default whether they are interested or not with the free Wifi for themselves when they are away from home. The forced opt-out approach demonstrates the aim of Belgacom to offer a very large free wifi coverage where population density exists. Clearly Belgacom hope that a minimum of users will take the required steps to disable the FON hotspot. Sneaky move! I’m irritated with the promotional game fificherchewifi because of the privacy issue it brings. In the same extend the broadcast of the FON_Belgacom SSID at my home has also its privacy issue (shouting aloud I’m a Belgacom customer is a privacy issue). The fact that I’m freely and by default forced in participating to the Belgacom Brand propaganda is abusive (go in a town center and see how many #@$&% FON_Belgacom will show up in your list of available Wifi network. What a nuisance). To be fair, I must note the technical part of this service (the B-Box2 perspective) is adequate.

If you don’t like the approach taken by Belgacom for this FON free Wifi stuff, go and disable the hotspot at your home!

 

 

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